This book has a lot of clear-eyed novel insights into American war on drugs and American racism and the intersection of those two things: how the war on drugs harms black people.
Carl Hart is a neuroscience professor who studies drug effects. His basic claim is that the harm caused by drugs, including hard drugs like crack and methamphetamine, is exaggerated so that drugs can be blamed for the problems in poor black communities. So blaming drugs enables people to avoid taking responsibility for counteracting racism. He's done experiments with people who were heavy users of hard drugs, and found the results didn't confirm the propaganda about the bad effects of the drugs, or the propaganda about “crack fiends”.
He writes about how the war on drugs criminalizes black people and ruins their lives. He has relatives whose lives have been ruined this way – literally ruined - so that it's hard to see how they can rebuild. One of his relatives was a math whiz as a child, whose brain is now trashed by antipsychotic drugs.
He also writes a good deal about American racism. He found less racism in his time in the US Air Force. Also he spent time in England and says it's less racist there – they don't have the history of black slavery that still affects life for black people in the US.
He writes about his upbringing and how he came to be a professor at Columbia. His writing about his childhood is sometimes slow, and the book's style is often annoyingly simple and without nuance. Writing is clearly not his strong point.
He tries to explain how he avoided the traps that so many black people fall into – being arrested and jailed, not really being invested in our society. A lot of it was simply luck – he did a lot of petty crime like shoplifting as a child and a young person, but he never got caught. And he was lucky in other ways – for example he took an Armed Services aptitude test just to get out of class, but he did very well on the math part, so he ended up in the Air Force. His upbringing didn't tend to point him towards hard work and achievement, but he gradually turned into a passionate scientific researcher.
Some of what he says about drugs, gives the wrong impression. His definition of addiction, which he says comes from the DSM, is that
a person’s drug use must interfere with important life functions like parenting, work, and intimate relationships. The use must continue despite ongoing negative consequences, take up a great deal of time and mental energy, and persist in the face of repeated attempts to stop or cut back. It may also include the experience of needing more of the drug to get the same effect (tolerance) and suffering withdrawal symptoms if use suddenly ceases.
To me, what addiction means is that “you would have a hard time quitting if you tried, even though there are negative consequences to using the drug”. Most people have a similar understanding of “addiction”, I think.
The DSM definition is more like how I'd define a “drug fiend” - someone whose life has really been trashed by the drug.
So when he says that only 20% of users of a drug are addicted, this gives a misleading impression. It's actually quite scary to think that 20% of meth users have had their lives trashed by using meth. And it suggests that more than 20% of meth users are addicted in the sense I would use it.
Almost all tobacco users are addicted according to my definition – but few according to the DSM definition, since a cigarette habit doesn't prevent a person from having a normal life - unless they get cancer from it...
The picture of drug use that he's debunking, the “This is your Brain on Drugs” government propaganda, is a strawman if you have used drugs casually and had fun, not bad experiences. I already knew that government anti-drug messages were propaganda, not fact-based. However, I hadn't realized that the things I'd heard about crack and meth – drugs I never tried – were propaganda.
The experiments he did with crack users (which showed they didn't act like “crack fiends”) seem to have had the disadvantage that the purpose of the experiment wasn't hidden from the crack users. Often in psychological experiments, the true purpose of the experiment is hidden from the subjects – the researchers tell the subjects the purpose is something other than what it really is. This is done so the subjects don't try to “prove something” to the experimenters, so you can observe them doing what they naturally would do, without being self-conscious about it.
With Carl Hart's experiments, the crack users may have wanted to pretend they weren't “crack fiends”, to themselves and to the experimenter. That might be part of the denial involved in addiction.
However, it may not be possible to do the kinds of experiments he did, without the subjects knowing what was being tested.
The book tells you a lot about what it's like to grow up as an impoverished black youth. It's very different from growing up in a middle-class family. His values were different from middle-class values.
He has good sensible advice for drug users – things that as he says, could save a lot of lives, but government organizations never say, because of the warlike mentality they have about drugs.
His good advice:
taking a drug orally tends to be a milder experience and you're less likely to be harmed
get plenty of sleep, a lot of the bad consequences of meth use for example are caused by lack of sleep. (to which I'd add, make sure to eat right).
avoid certain drug combinations that are dangerous, like heroin and alcohol.
He doesn't actually advocate legalization of hard drugs, rather decriminalization. This is still oppressive, for example requiring people to pay a fine if they're caught using a drug.
I found his book to be worth spending some hours of my finite life on.
He's integrated his research into his social criticism - I don't think his scientific research has an especially wide scope.
I wonder what other neuroscientists would say about his research, whether they would criticize his conclusions.
"Going straight", avoiding drug use and studying hard do imply hope.
Here's a beauty from Pot Stories. It's a line by Harry Angslinger, founder of the Bureau of Narcotics, parent organization of the DEA.
It shows the mentality back then:
He said: ‘The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.’ Black leaders of the 21st century would have a field day with this one.
Just think, DEA agents are carrying out the work of a contemptible, undeniable bigot.